The Early Middle Ages

Historical Context

On Christmas Day of the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Emperor Charles the Great Emperor over the Carolingian Empire. This event is known to most people.
The 9th century is rich in other events, most of which are unknown.

The pontificate of Popess Joan is suspected for the middle of the 9th century.
For the answer to the question whether she is really a historical figure, some information about this time is essential.


The Carolingian Empire

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Charlemagne had turned the Frankish Empire into a great empire in the west of Europe. He had been crowned emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in 800 AD.

Charlemagne died in 814 - the gradual dissolution of the empire began.

His successor was his son, Ludwig I, also known as Louis the Pious. The heir of the imperial crown reigned from 813 to 840. In this time he was deposed twice by his own sons and reinstated as emperor, but could not stop the decay of the empire.

Louis I died in 840. Successors were his sons Lothair, Charles the Bald and Louis. Lothair as eldest inherited the emperor dignity directly after the death of his father.

In the Treaty of Verdun, concluded in 843, the Carolingian Empire was divided among the sons of Charlemagne: Lothair took over the Middle Francia, which stretched from the North Sea to Italy (green). Charles the Bald became ruler of the Western Francia (blue) and Ludwig I of the Eastern Francia (orange and yellow, later becoming Germany), which is why he is also called Louis the German.

Although the Treaty of Verdun was short-lived, its influence on the political structure of Europe is enormous. The later nation states began to form: The Western Francia became France, the Eastern Francia became the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and the Middle Kingdom lived on for a long time in the Burgundian sphere of influence.

Middle Francia

In the year 855, Lothair I abdicated. Middle Francia was divided among his three sons.

Italy and the dependent Papal States went to the eldest son Louis II, who also inherited the imperial crown. To be crowned emperor he needed the blessing of the pope.
In the year 856 Louis II confirmed the newly elected pope in his office and was in turn crowned sacred by a pope John.
The names of the two can be found on a so-called combination coin.

Threat from the South

Carolingian cavalry archers
Carolingian cavalry archers
The Papal States were threatened by Muslim pirates. In the 840s - Pope Leo IV was in office - they had even attacked Rome and plundered St. Peter. The church was outside the city walls.

In 849 Pope Leo IV achieved a great victory over the Saracens in the naval battle near Ostia.

Thanks to this victory, the Christian princes in Italy were able to end the Islamic invasion and expel the invaders. In 847 they had established the Emirate of Bari, which fell in 871.

Succession to the throne

Louis II and his wife Engelberga (or Angilberga) had only daughters as descendants. With the death of the emperor in 875, the Italian line of the Franconian Empire was extinguished.
The emperor's dignity now passed to Charles II the Bald, who was ruler of the Western France.


Pope and Emperor

The Papal State had already come under the supremacy of the Frankish Empire in the time of Charlemagne and after the division of Verdun fell to the Middle Kingdom.
The relationship between pope and emperor developed into mutual dependence: the pope had to be confirmed by the ruling emperor (right of intervention). In return, every new emperor was dependent on the Pope's benevolence to become crowned sacred and thus legitimate emperor.

According to sources, a Pope John crowned Louis II as Carolingian Emperor in 856, after he had previously confirmed the newly elected Pope.
There are coins from that time with the monogram of a pope John and the name of emperor Louis II.
This information is crucial for the recognition of the Popess as historical character.

A calmer period

Between 855 and about 863 it was politically calmer. It is presumed that Popess Joan had her pontificate at this time, probably from about 855 or 856 to about 858.
Nicholas I. (Pope from 24 April 858 until his death in 867) was favoured by Emperor Louis II., but soon there was an open dispute between these two. The military siege of Rome was the climax of the controversy.
At least an agreement was reached, but Louis II was permanently involved in fights on southern Italian territory during the following years.

The Decline of the Papal State

The papacy also began to waver. John Anglicus had chosen John VIII as papal name and was - so the present knowledge shows - a woman, thus the pontificate invalid.

His name became "free again" and from 872 to 882 a John VIII reigned again. This pope was the first in Christian phase to die violently. The chroniclers do not agree: Either he died in the fight against the Saracens or he was beaten to death by his own relatives with a hammer.

With Pope Sergius III, the time of pornocracy began in Rome in 904. It lasted until 963, when the popes held courtesans who exercised real power. They also had popes imprisoned or murdered like John X and put their illegitimate children on the papal throne.

John XII was made pope as a youth of about 16 years. He called on the East Franconian King Otto I for help and crowned him emperor in 962. Thus the East Franconian Empire held the emperor's dignity; later it became the German Empire.
Pope John XII has a bad reputation with the chroniclers. The Lateran was called under his rule as a whore palace, he is said to have celebrated black masses, murdered people of his court and committed many other crimes. Even if these propagandistic source texts are viewed critically, John XII might have been a miserable pope. Nevertheless, he remained in the list of popes - unworthy of office, but at least a man.


Celibacy disfunctional

In the practice of the early Middle Ages, celibacy was often difficult to enforce. There was the regulation that priests should not be married. In reality, a considerable part of the clergy did not adhere to the regulation. No punishment was provided. However, the Church did not have to take care of wives or children.

But there was also the possibility that the marriage of a married man could continue after priestly ordination, but had to be sexually abstinent. - An elegant solution for an unhappy marriage that could not be dissolved.

It was only in the course of the 11th century that the Church was in a position to bring pressure to bear on the demands for celibacy.
It was not definitively binding until after the Second Lateran Council of 1139.

Home of the Pope: The Lateran

Papstkapelle im Lateran
Pope chapel in Lateran
Certainly testified in the ninth century;
then house chapel of the pope.
The pope is also bishop of Rome. The Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome is the Lateran Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano.

The ancient church became increasingly dilapidated. From 1646 it was stabilized by the Ticino master builder Francesco Borromini and extended in baroque style.

Next to the cathedral stood the medieval papal palace. Pope Leo III. (pontificate 795-816) had a dining room built, the Leonese Triclinium. Later popes also held their banquets there. From the Tricilinium only the apse with magnificent mosaics from the time around 800 remains today.

In the first centuries, the Pope's supremacy within the church was not yet self-evident. In the middle of the 8th century Pope Stephan II asked the Franconian king Pippin III for help in the fight against the Lombards. Together the Pope and King won over the invaders and Pippin gave the Pope the territories lost by the Lombards in central Italy. This can be seen as the basis for the later Papal state.

This donation by Pippin was confirmed by Charlemagne.
In return, Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in 800. This mutual recognition and dependence is of central importance in connection with the question of whether John Anglicus or Pope John VIII was a woman in disguise and thus a Pope.

Saint Peter with two keys. Asam Church Munich
S. Peter with two keys
Asam Church Munich
The apostle Peter is considered the first bishop of Rome.
In art, Peter is often depicted with a key, occasionally with two, as in the Asam Church in Munich. The key symbolizes access to the kingdom of heaven..
The representation with two keys is interpreted differently; one possibility is the interpretation as key to the kingdom of heaven and as key to the earthly kingdom.

Election and crown of the Pope (Tiara)

Statue in St. Peter
* Statue of the Popess?
In the early Middle Ages, the Pope was elected by the people of Rome. Only Local deacons and priests could be elected.
Bishops had their seats outside Rome. According to a rule of the Council of Nicaea in force at that time, they were not allowed to leave their seat – Thus they could not become Pope in this time. This led to the fact that particularly often relatively young cardinal deacons or riests were elected pope.

These facts are very important for the understanding of the time in which Popess Joan is said to have lived.
The Liber Pontificalis of the 9th century reports of a deacon John, who was the closest collaborator of Pope Benedict III and after his death had been elected as the new Pope.

The election by conclave, i.e. an assembly in a closed room, was only introduced in the course of the 13th century. And it was not until the end of the 14th century that it was decided that only cardinals could be elected Pope.

For the time being, the Pope only wore a hood with a border. This decoration later became a crown ring.
Towards the end of the 13th century a second crown ring was added and probably in the time of the antipopes in Avignon finally the third.
The depiction of popes often allows a rough chronological classification of their work on the basis of the design of the pope's crown, even if the work of art was created centuries later.

* Remark to the picture:
Statue with a woman in papal garb and key. Outside front of St. Peter.
Officially either a pope from the early Middle Ages or the personification of the church is to be represented.


Map Treaty of Verdun 843: Christoph S., Wolpertinger [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Image «Carolingian Cavalry Archers in fight with Awars»: Stuttgarter Psalter, early 9th century. Public domain
Image «Pope Chapel Sancta Sanctorum, Lateran»: Supposedly goes back to the fourth century. Formerly house chapel of the pope. Popess Johanna prayed here. © M. E. Habicht
Image «Statue of S. Peter»: Asam Church in Munich. Public domain
Image «Statue in St. Peter, probably representing the Popess»: © M. E. Habicht